- - Tuesday, December 16, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

This collection, intended to be in celebration of the New Republic’s centenary, will be looked at more as a requiem. This month, the magazine’s editor, Franklin Foer, and its long-standing and widely respected literary editor, Leon Wieseltier, left the magazine after a difference in vision with the owner, 30-year-old Chris Hughes. The magazine is moving back to New York City — its home for the first decades of its existence — and will be transformed, in the words of Mr. Hughes, into a “digital media company.” Mr. Hughes purchased the company only two years ago but seems to have tired of its place in American letters.

Although it is, of course, too early to tell what that “digital media company” may mean, the prospects are not hopeful. Little magazines, such as the New Republic, must have an animating vision and a substantive engagement with ideas that transcend party affiliation or economic fashion, and it is unclear how that can continue at the magazine. But even its ideological opponents have cause to lament its demise. For the magazine has always been a source of good writing on politics and the arts, consistently and proudly from a liberal perspective. The magazine has published all the major names of liberalism, from John Dewey to Arthur Schlesinger, Randolph Bourne and H.L. Mencken, and has represented at times the very definition of the liberal establishment.

Although some, including Mr. Foer himself, argue that the New Republic brand of liberalism was a welter of contradictions, and was defined more by what is was against — Jeffersonian individualism, Joe McCarthy and George Bush, at various times — than what it was for. And there is some truth to that position; a magazine that has been in existence for a century cannot help but publish people who disagree with one another. But Mr. Foer overstates his case, since the basic outlines of a perspective was present right from the beginning, and it can be described as a technocratic faith in large institutions and the power of what would now be called data.

As Mr. Foer describes it, the liberalism in part created by the magazine in the decades of the 20th century believed “the state was not just an essential tool for curbing corporations, but it could also play a more affirmative life in the country.” The leftists of various eras, such as Edmund Wilson, who broke with the magazine tended to do so for not moving fast enough, but the central conviction — that the country is better off running things than the people, and that the government runs better when run by experts — is a thread that moves through the decades.

The magazine’s birth narrative makes this clear from the start. The New Republic was founded by two people who were affluent, and who found American society to be too uncontrolled, too “Jeffersonian,” for their taste. The wealthy (by marriage) left-leaning Herbert Croly called for the country in his 1909 book, “The Promise of American Life,” to embrace a centralized state. He joined with Willard Straight, a top J.P. Morgan lieutenant, and his wife, and the New Republic soon made a name for itself. It was not long afterward that the word “liberal” was being applied to it. This collection, nicely edited by Mr. Foer, includes selections from every decade of the journal’s existence. For the founding period, we have Walter Lippmann on the ferocity and waste of World War I, Dewey on pacifism and the inimitable Rebecca West, whose essay on criticism sets the tone for the best of the magazine’s work — energetic, combative, substantive and engaging.

Mr. Foer adds introductions to the sections, explaining the context and importance of each piece and tracing the New Republic’s machinations from technocratic liberalism to perhaps too close sympathy with communism, through its dalliance with John F. Kennedy, and up through the opposition to Reagan, the Clinton years, the triumphant arrival of Andrew Sullivan, through its early support for and then changed mind about Iraq (represented in a strong piece by Peter Beinart) up to the present.

As John Podhoretz noted, in the Obama years, the New Republic did not gain the foothold one would expect from the magazine that defined liberalism. But that may have more to do with the fact that liberalism is largely intellectually bankrupt, its ideas either obsolete or overshadowed by celebrity posturing and irrational hatred for conservatives. A sad end to a sometimes-great magazine, and Mr. Hughes‘ afterword, where he commits to continuing the magazine’s brand of journalism for the next century, rings even more hollow now.

Gerald J. Russello is editor of The University Bookman.


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